But it is important to remember that we created these negative and demoralized people. We created them by relying on organising processes that discount and deny our best human capacities…. We can realize that ‘you can’t hate someone whose story you know.'” (Wheatley, 2007, pp. 56-57)
This land is your land; this land is not my land.
nîpawistamâsowin: WE WILL STAND UP: As the documentary opens, Tasha Hubbard (director) holds up the barbed wire fencing for her two sons to crawl through. My skin crawled. My great aunty, the greatest leader, economist, and hold-everyone-together person, would do this as her and I went to the field to get Flossy the milk cow. Aunty always wore a house dress and rubber boots. One day, as she was crawling through, the barb wire slipped from her hand and tore open her inner tighs. I was a little girl and terrified. I hesitantly asked, “Aunty, are you okay?” She quietly groaned, “No.” And on we went to get Flossy; she had to be milked.
As I begin to understand my ancestors and my complicity in the ongoing colonial violence of Indigenous peoples, I think about this memory and the aretfact I brought to class. Every step I take is not my land—even what is considered the “commons” (such as they are under capitalism). When the town hall full of white farmers and hunters opposed any outsiders entering onto their land, I realize the full impact of colonial ideas of justifiably stealing land and commiting crimes against the land, animals, and colonial lives, cultures, languages, and ways of being.
Only a white person would say, “It doesn’t matter if you are blue or purple or red…” to justify racism and systemic prejudice.
As I think about how pkaals (Mount Tolmie) has been colonized, the Songhees’ peoples relationship to the land, ocean, and animals continues to be erased, I cannot help but wonder, “What’s with all that ugly cement that could be transformed? Where are the Indigenous artefacts that can teach? Where is the questioning of the measures used to keep the ‘wrong’ people out? Why are their 3-car garage, gated mansions and golf courses that are killing the water supply and irrevocably damaging the land?”
Wood Guthrie (1959) sings about the injustices of people in poverty. But this “land was not made for you and me.” This is one of those dominant stories planted in us that Okri talks about.
I have very little to mark that I was in this world. This cookbook and a newspaper article from when I was a little girl in Sangudo and walked into a teacher’s strike. I did not expect my Great Aunty’s cookbook to ever land in my hands. I take it everyone when I move. The pages are tattered, unreadable in many places, covered in ancient butter, flour, and my aunty’s smudged fingertips.
My aunty rarely used recipes except for her desserts, which were her guilty pleasure as my uncle wasted horrible amounts of money escaping his past and familial responsibilities. But her recipe books do not make me sad. I carry her book, which is in tatters, but lovely all the same, to remind me to bump up against the dominant leadership beliefs of what constitutes knowledge and who holds the power to define knowledge. Something I encoutered in the male-dominated business world and in academia. My understandings of great leadership is being able to challenge Power.
As Salter (2017) writes, something as seemingly simple as this receipe book, allows for the co-constructive of new stories [and silent stories and] also speaks to a collective ‘act of resistance’, actively resisting the deafening discourse of silence” (p. 369). In the same way, to include this familial artefact is to “openly challenge oppression” (Salter, 2007, p. 369) as this would not normally be considered as academically acceptable in higher education.
I cannot help but think that as natural leaders, “when women come together” they speak “about the idea of change as being inherently connected to the group experience, and have linked this to an experience of personal and collective transformation. Another way to story it may be a move from personal to political and/or private to public” (Salter, 2007, p. 369). Although my great aunty, without education, money, driver’s license, property, etc. would not be considered as an effective leader by those in the centre, I know there are so many stories that she shared (and lots kept hidden for practical reasons) on ways that women led a quiet revolution.
Familial and kinship knowledge then needs to be at the heart of leadership as resistance and for social change.
What we call knowledge then simply refers to the particular construction or version of a phenomenon that has received the stamp of truth in our society”—including academia (Wheatley, 2007, p. 378; Burr, 2003, p. 68).
Educational leadership definition-in-progress
The essence of my educational leadership philosophy lies in a relational, community-based way of being where a leader is willing to stand on shaky ground so they can imagine otherwise. That is, I actively seek possibilities and knowledge beyond the world and position I inhabit, with a goal of contributing to shaping socially just and inclusive post-secondary landscapes
Educational leadership from this framework embodies a coming alongside, not imposing upon, community members. As such, the foundation of my educational leadership philosophy is grounded in decolonizing education and understandings of what constitutes formal and experiential learning. This definition of leadership offers all university members an environment to realize their dreams without erasing their identities. Within this framework of educational leadership, education is by and for community
My approach to pedagogy is rooted in the late American educator Dewey’s (1938) philosophy of educative and miseducative learning experiences. I teach and mentor from a relational place; that is, all students and their voices and lived experiences are honoured. I respect that how students experience higher education will echo across their lives. These understandings are shaped by the teachings of those who are engaged in narrative forms of understanding inequality and social justice. My pedagogical philosophy is also framed by the belief that as I come alongside students, we learn together.
“We have a great need to remember the fact of human goodness. Today, human goodness seems like an outrageous ‘fact.’ Every moment we are confronted with mounting evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another” (Wheatley, 2007, p. 35). Both hierarchial and lateral violence to humans, animals, planet, cultures, language…
Horizons of leadership
My experiences with front stage-back stage began at a tender age. These early experiences and experiences along the way on multiple hierarchial-based landscapes leave me with many wonders of how leadership might shift.
I learned on my childhood landscapes to silence the sting of poverty; to silence the burn and shame of a stomach as empty as the barren lunchboxes that I pretended contained lovely food like my classmates. In the larger community landscape of my childhood, I too recall experiences:
As we entered the laundromat, the women all busily doing their laundry and gossiping about life—weather, husbands, children, neighbours—stopped to stare, and, glare. I should have been too young to know why; but, even as a child, I knew. The sound of the chair’s legs I was pulling (so I could reach the washing machine) screeched out my identity: that kid from that family. The women, in defiance of my polluting the machines where they had to wash their families’ clothing, rallied around the machines, as if protecting them—and, prevented me from the task at hand. This is one of so many experiences of overt exclusion in a public space by a community because of my family’s poverty. I learned in this clean place, and space, that I was dirty because of poverty.
I wonder what made these women decide to practice such cruelty. I was ashamed, hurt, disgraced; I was unable to process this. As a result, I internalized it and blamed myself for my shortcoming of being from poverty. As if I had a choice. (From my field notes, January 5, 2015; pp. 2-3)
The laundromat women, in this rural hamlet, were afraid of my family’s clothes, embedded and embodied with our filth, hunger, and shame. Perhaps they worried that somehow these outcasts’ cast-offs would taint and infect their clothing and, thus their bodies and lives. These women saw and storied the clothing I dragged in black garbage bags, and myself, as dangerous. By protecting the washing machines, “they could remain untouched” by the stain of poverty (Lugones, 1987, p. 5).
What stories had been planted in them that said my family were not allowed onto this front stage? This would not be the last time Power tried to make me feel that I should scurry back to the backstage. And we see it everyday in the erasure of the lives of those without homes, those with addictions, sex workers, etc.
Leadership through creating to new stories to live by requires walking in ways that honour every single life and asking, “What is this person or group excluded?” Thus, challenging the way that power is enacted hierarchially and laterally.
Leading in good ways
Salter, Baldwin, Wheatley, McGregor… are all speaking in ways to solidarity through community. What is most salient is that being a good human being matters more than any accumulation of wealth, titles, etc.
(Re)imagining resilience through anti-oppressive and anti-colonial ways of knowing
My career and education journey continues to be shaped by including that which “higher” education does not value: waitressing, cooking, cleaning houses, bartending, labouring, caring for others—and, creating a community of support, mentorship, and advocacy for “poverty-class” students. I remember how painful—and shaming, this was when I applied for SSHRC in my undergrad and realized all that I had done to survive, all that shaped my life, had no place on the Canadian Commons CV. Yet, these lived experiences are crucial to survival, being resourceful, and generally being resilient. But no leaders were aware of the privilege that SSHRC upholds. It has been normalized that what is included in the Canadian Commons CV are those activities of those from the centre.
However, As Pearce, McMurray, Walsh, and Malek (2016) note, “constricted definitions of resiliency have limited application” to marginalized populations “who typically negotiate complex interpersonal, intercultural, historical, and geological factors in order to overcome […] challenges” (p. 269). Too often language is used in overarching ways that create a poster child of success and Other. As such, without an understanding of the complex social characteristics that shape lives in the making there is a tendency to create what I term social characteristic silos (e.g., gender-age versus gender-race) while simultaneously advocating for understanding lived experiences through an intersectional lens.
It seems that language within academia helps Western-wash individuals’ and groups’ complex lived experience. As Pearce et al. (2016) write, “Western epistemological views and [… marginalized] population and dramatically influence mainstream perceptions […] and service provision” and support (p. 171) the complexities of lived experiences and creating forward-looking stories. For instance, educational leaders too often say to me, “You’re so resilient compared to this or that student.” As a result, Pearce et al. (2016) state that:
…this stance [emphasizes] an individual’s ability to independently thrive and contribute to society within which positive adaptation is equated with a person’s capacity to embody capitalist [and neoliberal] values such as independence from the state and financial self-sufficiency. (p. 371)
Challenging dominant, mainstream notions of resiliency in marginalized populations is extremely salient in higher education leadership and in particular within universities that increasingly resemble and operate as corporations. Grand higher education leadership narratives are discussed behind closed doors. At the University of Victoria, this means that all messages and policies must conform to “The Edge” slogan and be “edgified.” As a result, where do these neoliberal stories leave leaders who are committed to higher education for social justice and civic engagement? As Wheatley (2007) advocates, we need new leadership stories (rather than leaders) if we are to get out of the mess we are in. Leadership philosophies and ways of being need to be unpacked using Okri’s (1989) profound and life-changing philosophy:
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)
In this way, Okri (1989) challenges the deeply planted stories that shape leadership inside and outside of academia. For instance, in thinking about resilience, how do colonial dominant narratives that story those from poverty as less-than shape leadership on the higher education landscape? These damaging colonial and capitalist narratives are ubiquitous in the literature in a multitude of ways. The rags-to-riches fallacy, myth of the classless society, bootstrap dogma, meritocracy, (un)deserving poor not to mention “neoliberalism’s war on higher education” and leadership (Giroux, 2014), “neoliberalism as creative destruction” (Harvey, 2007) plus the shift from the war on poverty to the war on the poor (Santiago, 2015).
As I witness international undergraduate students being used to balance budgets as domestic enrolment rates decline, the move to limited tenure and sessional instructors, bloating of administrative positions, etc., how can the leaders and leadership we need to deal with the escalating disaster of higher education, our planet, communities, and societies? As Pearce et al. (2016) state, “Critics argue that hegemonic Western notions of resilience need to be deconstructed, accommodating cultural [and social class] variances within resilience discourse” (p. 37). Note that I have tensions with the term accommodate as it can imply making concessions for those considered less-than, Other. For instance, with my research, accommodate is often used to imply “poverty-class” students not university ready. As such, I understand leadership philosophies as deeply grounded in shifting Western-centric “epistemological understanding[s] [of] resilience within a multi-dimensional context” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 371), which includes social relations, temporality, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Such as, respecting the lived experiences of those who “display” for example, “resilience through constructing their lives amidst significant forces of oppression” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 371). In this way leadership holds the promise of co-creating and co-collaborating ways of being that honour all lives in the making. To create as Wheatley (2007) advocates a leadership in our troubled and overwhelming times, where the “old story, plans, and designs” (p. 28) where we see the “negative and troubling behaviours in organizations today as the clash between the forces of life and the forces of domination, between the new story and the old” (p. 29). Perhaps the tipping point is close at hand? Will it take a revolution? I wonder, how can we sheet leadership in historic institutions that continue to live the old story while expecting a different outcome (Wheatley, 2007)?
The tensions between leaderships that purports to honour equity, diversity, and inclusion and decolonizing the higher education landscape sits in binary tension with the reality of archaic leadership styles and policies where “[p]erformance falls back to precontest levels. In organizations drive by greed, people push back by distrusting and despising their leaders. In organizations that try to substitute monetary rewards for a true purpose, people respond with apathy and disaffection” (Wheatley, 2007, p. 29). This is made visible in a myriad of ways in the capitalist-cum-neoliberal university. For instance, methodological choices that engage participants without offering something in return to improve their lives.
The leadership changemakers
The president of Amarillo College (Texas, USA) heads a college where the majority of students are from poverty. He chose to spend a weekend experiencing what it is like for many of his students are homeless. Although he did not last the entire weekend, it was a life and educational leadership changing experience (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Returning to the college, he embarked on a major institutional cultural shift. As he says, “It is the students in poverty who are taking the biggest gamble”; he told professors, advisors, and administrators, “Quit wishing for a different kind of student. We want to be the right college for the students we have” Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). The result? A “No Excuses Poverty Initiative” that starts at the top—with a total commitment by President Russell Lowery-Hart. Every meeting, every report, every step of the way, everything is posted online. All initiatives are designed to be not only transparent but responsive to students’ immediate (e.g., money to pay for utilities) and longer-term needs (e.g., reliable housing) (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018). Amarillo College supports their students as they transition into and through college completion with a “culture of caring” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, cover). I can imagine how this transforms lives in complex ways and has the potential to reduce the stigma surrounding poverty. I can imagine how these deep leadership commitments will echo across generations. I can imagine how this college is contributing to the public good and supporting students to not only break the cycle of poverty but also become actively engaged citizens for a better future. I can imagine this leadership model being adapted in Canadian universities who are willing to shift their focus on why they existential of their exist (i.e., pre-corporate university).
CampusRom, Xarxa Universitària Gitana de Catalunya (Catalonia, Spain), is a grassroots initiative to increase access to university for Roma and Gypsy students. These students face challenges specific to their ethnicity and often low SES status. As such, CampusRom is a holistic model that support students to access and complete their programs of study while encouraging participation and support of the institution and community-at-large. The students’ motto (roughly translated), is “From solidarity, we will achieve it!” (Xarxa Universitària Gitana de Catalunya, 2019, n.p.). This solidarity is critical to combat the violent racism that Roma and Gypsy people face in society and education institutes (only one percent of students at this university are Roma and Gypsy), communities of solidary, support, mentorship, and advocacy on and off the academic landscape is crucial for students’ well-being and success (Xarxa Universitària Gitana de Catalunya, 2019).
“Social class is also the one aspect of inequality that has been marginalized in the contemporary focus on diversity” (Reay, 2012, p. 588).
Putting together the research puzzle. I juxtapose Amarillo College, an institutional-level led change and CampusRom, a grassroots movement, with the world-renowned higher education scholar Reay’s experiences of attempting to address access and equity for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Reay (2018) writes of her experiences:
In the early days I also felt I could make a difference in relation to widening access and participation. In the first few years I tried really hard but failed to have any impact. To make a difference you really need to have a position of power in an undergraduate college, and in Cambridge you have to be invited to join a college. With no real social connections and capital, and as an outsider to Cambridge, I had little chance. I ended up never having a connection with a college beyond one offer of dining rights once a week. After 5 years, despite joining university-wide committees and liaising with whoever I could, my initial optimism gave way to a sense of futility. I was wasting my time. By then I had 10 PhD students. A great deal of my passion and pursuit of social justice went into my supervisory relationship with them, but also into the research projects I was conducting with like-minded academics, all in post-1992 [post-austerity] universities. (p. 455)
Reay raises a troubling concern that continues to nag away at my belief in the potential of my research to create shifts within these colonial higher education universities. I wonder, if those with Power are not committed to widening access to “poverty-class” students (not to mention professors, advisors, and administrators), is my research and advocacy futile? I wonder, is there somewhere on the spectrum between Amarillo College, CampusRom, and publicly-funded Canadian universities that exclude social class from EDI where social change can take root at the grassroots level? I wonder, how might this research make social class matter when discrimination against the poor continues to be excluded from our Human Rights Act? Sayer (2002) best articulates the “problem” with social class and the continued exclusion in EDI policies: class “continues to figure centrally in people’s lives, especially for those who … lack the privilege to be able to ignore it” (n.p.; see also Skeggs, 1997; Laberge, 2017, p. 322). For those at the centre, who have no lived experiences of poverty, or who chose not to get close enough to learn how it shapes lives, I wonder how my research might provide ways to make it visible and legitimize this social “identity” for inclusion in EDI (Sayer, 2005, 2002; Laberge, 2017).
I seek to understand, how might the Shoestring Initiative, an enterprise I co-founded, create a community of mentorship, support, and advocacy for university members from and/or living in poverty? How might this community shape lived experiences and affect EDI change to include low socioeconomic status as an invisible marginalized group? By bringing my master’s research from the trenches to the grassroots level, I seek to understand how collectively creating this community will impact students’ lived experiences, knowledge production, completion rates, solidarity, and destigmatizing poverty.
There can be no doubt (at least for those in the margins of higher education landscapes) that universities have always perpetuated social class privilege (Blome & Kleider, 2016; Burtch, 2006; Ivana, 2017; Hunt & Bullock, 2016; Iverson, 2012; Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008). Indeed, as Ashurt (2018) notes, “Education is and always has been a deeply contested space” (p. 177). (Of course, this has changed in terms of recruiting international undergraduate students, which I will discuss later in this paper). Whether we have “higher” understandings of social class inequality and inequity, we (should) know that these spaces and places were built for those avec privilege by those sans privilege. This perpetuation of privilege is hyper-amplified by the ushering in of neoliberalism during the Regan-Thatcher era (1970s—), a period marked by the wholesale, ongoing slaughter of social programs (e.g., education, healthcare, welfare), in for example, Canada, the USA, and UK, and the rise of jacked-up capitalism (neo-feudalism—are we there yet?). While academics research and produce a proliferation of publications on the topic of neoliberalism and the neoliberal university, it continues to eat away at any semblance of taxpayer-funded higher education for the public good, collegiality, community-building, relational ways of being, mentorship, knowledge mobilization, collaboration—and, just plain old being a decent human being. I begin to wonder if the neoliberal university, within its privileged pillars, has not created masses—from students to sessionals to professors (who never stop fearing the publish or perish mantra and/or accumulating ever more academic accolades), of “outsiders on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne, 1990, p. xx Reay, 2017). I wonder if the neoliberal university is causing us (the collective us) to reinforce higher education landscapes as sites of exclusion that perpetuate inequality and inequity.
This research does not seek to understand how or why we got to this point. There is an abundance of literature that delves into the history of how neoliberalism came about and continues to decimate higher education (see Henry Giroux, 2014), communities, societies, and the environment. If nothing changes, we will see the ushering in of decades of literature on the shift from the neoliberal to the neo-feudal university. There is enough literature out there to sustain the academic publishing monopolies and keep feeding predator publishers.
Further, from first-year undergraduate students to tenured professors to administrators, there is a collective, if unspoken, understanding that the neoliberal university is a vacuous void that is stripping humanity from us all. I wonder, how can I, as a mature female student, with no place to go back to, survive? Yet, even though I am tired, there is something within me that continues to resist and persist. I have hope and faith that the neoliberal tipping point in higher education is close at hand. The point where the masses of professors, advisors, administrators, and students stand up, make a sign, and start a grassroots movement to upend neoliberalism’s jar-crushing grip on our publicly-funded universities. This is crucial for people from poverty to be able to access higher education in ways that honour their lives in the making (and not from a deficit-based framework)—and, dreams. This is the heart of this research.
Seeking answers and solutions. I seek to explore, what is not adequately addressed in the literature, how can we fix the crises we are in? This research is not intended to try, as McMahon (2014) writes, “to get privileged elites to take these other of being in the world seriously” (p. 30). They ask, “How can they? These words are the counter narratives to their own stories: stories that justify their lives and their privilege” (p. 30). This research is for those who are doing the boots-on-the ground, trampling on perfectly-manicured, colonial higher education lawns, grassroots work to push the privileged pillars of universities in order to dig up and dislodge neoliberalism, colonialism, and plain old inequality and inequity that universities perpetuate.
Second, little has changed in the literature since my masters. While there is ample research on why access and equity to/in higher education are important for socioeconomically “disadvantaged” students (e.g., education is considered a critical mechanism to stop the cycle of poverty), little exists beyond academic and theoretical discussions. Amarillo College is a rare exception of praxis. For the last two years, there is a decided trend in higher education issues.
What has become topical is the plight of academics in academia, especially contracts teachers and post-doctoral students who are chasing the tenure-track dream—and, the plight of colleges and universities who are facing downsizing or closure, tenure-track dismantling, “free speech” chaos, professoriate stress and mental health issues, and neoliberal-corporate attacks from within and outside.
Central to this research. Through exploring these research wonders, how can we reimagine, retake, and reshape the neoliberal university landscape as a site for social justice? How can we “push privileged pillars in Canadian higher education” (Laberge, 2017– present, dissertation-in-progress), to advance socioeconomic diversity and social justice in Canadian universities? How can neoliberal higher education landscapes be remade, by bringing knowledge from the trenches to the grassroots to widen access and participation for “poverty-class” students in relational ways (Nancy Fraser)?
The key to these questions, from my lived experiences and research perspectives, lies in resistance, revolution, and sustainable change—using Freire’s theory of the oppressed as the theoretical foundation (Freire, 2016). Thus, the tipping point will perhaps be when we collectively reimagine and refocus on what publicly-funded universities’ roles are in Canadian society: work towards socially just and inclusive societies that mitigate inequality and inequity. This requires, what feels like, insurmountable shifts, like the proverbial pushing the boulder up the hill. Yet, as Hanlon (2019) says, “The university is a ticking time bomb” (n.p.). At some point, universities will have to (or be forced to) contend with their complicity in the enormity of escalating societal problems. At some point, everyone will have to (or be forced to) contend with their complicity in the enormity of escalating social problems—and, supporting the privileged pillars of Canadian universities, which includes myself. As Wheatley (2007) advocates, if we want a different story then we need to write a new plot; we do not need to replace the characters. They state, “When it is time for a new story to emerge, holding onto the past only intensifies our dilemma” (p. 31). As such, they recommend that I need to tell my stories of lived experiences in the neoliberal university. In the sharing of my stories, other stories will emerge, stories of hope, resilience, change—and, a collective spoken understanding the corporatization of universities is not working.
Methodological underpinnings. Ahmed (2018) writes, “…we might need evidence of what we experience because of what we experience: because so often when you encounter [—isms] you end up estranged from a world. You can feel that when something is pointed to you, repeatedly, then the problem is you. But having this evidence does not mean you can get through the wall. Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down” or, in my research, push the privileged pillars in Canadian universities (n.p.). Therefore, although I am aware I am seen as the problem, even though I have ample evidence of the problem, I need allies, advocates, and accomplices. As Ahmed (2018) says, “To be in a position to provide evidence requires that you have support” (n.p.). I imagine this support coming from/through methodology. Specifically, using participatory action and photovoice aligns with my co-collaborative relational way of conducting research—and, decentring power.
Shifting from narrative inquiry. The move from using semi-structured interviews in my exploratory research, which held many tensions for me, to using Clandinin & Connelly’s (2000) narrative inquiry made methodological sense. Narrative inquiry provided a way for me to explore my own narrative beginnings in relation to my research (which were extremely muddled) and conduct research in a relational way that honoured lives in the making and held stories sacred. Given how long trust takes to develop—and, certainly given this was the first time student-participants had ever discussed how growing up in poverty shaped their experiences as they were composing lives on the higher education landscape—long-term, ongoing research conversations were crucial to unpacking experiences and creating forward-looking stories (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Laberge, 2017). Yet, over the last two years at this institution, the more I researched, explore, unearthed, wondered, and discovered, this methodology was increasingly tension-filled for me. I was looking for a methodology that was more action-based and emancipatory. Thus, a methodology founded upon praxis.
Leadership change through collectivity: Participatory action research. What draws me to participatory action research (PAR) as a methodology is that it is a “collective project joining researchers and actors, that produces knowledge emerging from practice and knowledge and sent back to it, in an interactive and progressive relation” (Pearce, McMurray, Walsh & Malek, 2016, p. 372). In this way, “participants” and the “researcher” are in collaboration and relation from the beginning of the research cycle to the closure. Thus, even though I have put forward a research puzzle, goals, and purposes in this proposal, they are not static. Rather, PAR is in keeping with social activist research; that is, grassroots work for social change. As such, PAR “encourages participants and researchers, as co-researchers, to jointly agree on the research goals, purpose, and agenda, collaborate to determine the nature of the data collection methods and analysis, and synthesize the results in cooperation” (p. 372). Therefore, “communities of inquiry and action evolve and address questions and issues that are significant for those who participate as co-researchers” (p. 372). Rather than my defining and deciding upon participants’ questions, needs, concerns as I did in my master’s narrative inquiry, we collectively come together to define what we individually (based on lived experiences and knowledge) and collectively deem as important (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 372). Yet, pragmatically, if the collective agrees on the research agenda, for example, it does not mean that everyone agrees based on their own needs, morals, and ethics. As such, PAR requires careful negotiation at the beginning and ongoing check ins to ensure that participant community members do not feel silenced or sidelined. In contrast, with my narrative inquiry, I developed the research puzzle and wonders based upon what I was interested in exploring (although I was part of a narrative inquiry community who helped shape the research puzzle). The research agenda was developed by me and heavily influenced by completing my thesis and completing it on time. Had my research gone off the rails, so to speak, this would have been part of my reflexive analysis and I feel there was much less at stake for me than using PAR (although I am sensitive to the harm that could have been done to participants).
Second, I developed the solutions and recommendations from my narrative inquiry, which were shaped by my own experiences, rush to the degree finish line, and (un)known biases. Conversely, with PAR, participants share the knowledge produced with community (defined in the broadest sense). Although as participant-researcher I will mobilize the knowledge produced from the research in various academic forums, the idea of research “ownership” shifts. For me, this works towards anti-colonial and anti-oppressive research methodologies.
Third, with PAR, participants include community and normally use facilitator-led focus groups. In this way, potentially all voices are heard and conversations can be dynamic. However, as many can attest, group dynamics, personalities, and communication styles can result in a few dominating conversations—even with the most experienced facilitators leading discussions. I wonder, what is my role as student-participant-researcher? Do I facilitate and participate? As a “poverty-class” student, how or could I suspend my own research agenda? How might my participation undermine the collaborative nature of PAR? In contrast, my narrative inquiry research conversations were one-on-one so that each participant had uninterrupted time to unpack their lived experiences (of course this required that I not take over the conversation), without fear (or lessened fear) of discussing issues of race, Indigeneity, sexual orientation, etc. However, because these research conversations happened in isolation, each individual participant was not able to learn of potential common threads among other participants’ lived experiences.
Fourth, in analyzing the data for narrative inquiry and PAR, both methodologies use a form of thematic analysis. With PAR, a “thematic analysis of the focus group transcripts [are] completed in order to respond to the research” puzzle by conducting line-by-line coding as a community (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 369). With narrative inquiry, I read across the narrative accounts to find threads without consulting with participants (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). As such, I ran the risk of misinterpreting participants storied lives; how I read across the narrative accounts is shaped by lived experiences. However, my committee, narrative inquiry community, and work-in-progress partner played an important role in questioning my analysis and bringing forth wonders I had not considered.
Fifth, the creation of the research findings is co-developed in actuality using PAR. Collectively, we decide on what will be made public and which platforms will be used to mobilize the knowledge. With narrative inquiry, although the narrative accounts are said to be co-composed, in reality, I wrote the narrative accounts and took them back to participants to read. After this, they had the opportunity to request changes, additions, and deletions (the co-negotiation component) (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).
Sixth, power is an ongoing concern for me as a human, student, and researcher. I see, and have experienced, the brutality of power imbalances within academia (and in the work world). Because PAR is a collaborative process from beginning to end, it “minimizes the power differential between professional researchers and community experts and asserts that experiential knowledge is a valid form of expertise” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 372). Because student-participants are, or may be, members of the Shoestring Initiative, they are already part of a community where there is deep respect for experiential knowledge and relational ways of being. A philosophical underpinning of this research is that students are knowledge producers and the best people to understand their own lived experiences (I do not use the word “expert” to bump up against colonial notions of who are the developers and holders of knowledge). At the same time, my narrative inquiry did not hold the same potential for power imbalances if I were, for example, a professor (a common theme with participants and myself is the fear of professors who hold the Power to out and oust us—whether this power is imagined or real). Yet, as a graduate student conducting the research, I still felt that no matter what I did to mitigate any power imbalances those tensions existed (this perhaps is solely my own perception or preoccupation with oppression and oppressive policies, pedagogies, methodologies, and ways of being).
Seventh, relational ethics are the foundation of narrative inquiry and PAR. As Pearce et al., (2016) state, “According to Freire (2000) a situation where individuals are prevented from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence; ‘to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects’” (p. 372; Freire, 2000, p. 85). Thus, PAR in terms of my research, aligns with my theoretical foundation based on Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. My ethical stance is such that I am not comfortable conducting research that uses participants’ solely for my own gain; research for me, as all things in my life, must be relational. Yet, with narrative inquiry, I wonder about relational ethics because participants were not part of the research project from concept to the conclusion. I wonder, did I in any way reify the complexity of social characteristics that shape their stories, lived experiences, and knowledge? I wonder, in developing action items and recommendations without them, did I commit a violence by excluding their voices?
Eighth, what draws me to PAR is that it holds the potential “[t]o mitigate the extent to which [marginalized] voices are undermined in the Western-centric methodological processes” (Pearce et al., 2016, p, 372). I feel that narrative inquiry is also an anti-colonial and anti-oppressive methodology especially in light of the fact that narrative inquiry begins in experience not dominant Western-centric theories (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The goal of narrative inquiry, and I believe PAR, is not to support existing colonial theories and sense making.
Ninth, both PAR and narrative inquiry have specific methodological research justifications. The research justification with PAR is to “affect change through the co-development of collaborative-based solutions through sharing of lived experiences, reflexivity […] to promote a variety of actions taken with the goal of affecting social change [….] Co-researchers, therefore, must collectively adopt a commitment to the identification and implementation of solutions that pertain to the issues reflected in the research” (pp. 372, 385). In my research and business experience, this is the power of PAR: research holds extraordinary potential when participants co-develop solutions that can be implemented in the very communities which they are in service to. I imagine participants in my research developing solutions and action items that can be implemented, adapted, and built upon by grassroots organizations like the Shoestring Initiative to equity and human rights departments to student advocacy groups to deans. While narrative inquiry is based on rigorous social, personal, and practical justifications, the primary research goal is to interrupt dominant institutional, social, familial, and educational narratives (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). I wonder, without the collaborative problem-solving element of PAR, can narrative inquiry as a research methodology have the same desired social change outcomes as PAR potentially has? Or, might the mixing of the different yet, similar, research justifications provide for more impactful change? I am drawn back to the Nigerian storyteller Okri (1989) who eloquently captures the urgency of interrupting narratives for social change:
In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)
Given the dominant narratives that shape stereotypes, laws, legislation, EDI, pedagogies, etc.—and, injustice, (e.g., myth of the classless society, meritocracy, American Dream, bootstraps dogma, rags-to-riches fallacy, and born on third base—not to mention the plethora of disparaging language for “poverty-class” people), I wonder if a merging of both methodologies justifications warrants attention in order to unpack stories planted in us and change the stories we live by. By interrupting damaging dominant “poverty-class” narratives, both PAR and narrative inquiry bump up against the reification of these narratives and language that Other and exclude masses from society and higher education.
Finally, both methodologies provide the opportunity to create leaders who can utilise what they learn and contribute and share it with community. They can be a central part of creating new stories to live by that can contribute to social change inside and outside of academia. This happened in my master’s research: students started to teach each other how to advocate for their rights, participants started creating informal communities of mentorship and support, some participants started to demand a seat at administrators’ tables….
Photovoice as a method. Photovoice and/or photo-video, is “a visual participatory research tool developed by Wang and Burris” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 372; Rose, 2014, pp. 304-305). It “uses images taken by participants to identify significant community issues” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 372) “and comes in part from a specific tradition of action research with disadvantaged and marginalised social groups inspired by the Brazilian activist Paulo Freire” (Rose, 2014, p. 372). Photovoice is inspirational and captures something more than words can often do. As Berger (1977) says, “Seeing comes before words” and “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe” (cover, p. 8). For instance, I am working on a research project involving homeless deterrence technology. Until a certain experience, I was not aware it even existed. Now, I cannot help but capture images of this form of violence and injustice against those without homes who occupy the purported last of the commons. The images I take are not merely pictures; they require careful analysis to unpack what I see and what I have yet to learn to see. As such, “Freire’s work (2000), inspired the idea that a visual image can challenge individuals to think critically about their community and the political and social forces within it” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 373). In keeping with the leadership potential of PAR, because photovoice “is participant centered at its core; it empowers participants both directly, through advocacy, and indirectly through the leadership roles they assume” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 373). In addition, using photos “rests on the assumption that images teach what participants perceive as significant and allows them to define their concerns and priorities” (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 373). While I had participants in my narrative inquiry draw images to reflect their education journeys, I wonder how much more impactful it would have been to have incorporated photovoice. For instance, images of certain areas on campus that we all visited might reveal more than conceal behind my descriptions of these spaces and places. I wonder how photovoice might be employed to embrace “multiple ways of know […] is the only way [or one way] to avoid perpetuating the ‘acculturation’[/assimilation] narrative” that is so prevalent as a sign of “success” in the literature on socioeconomically “disadvantaged” students and higher education (Pearce et al., 2016, p. 373). Finally, “seeking an opportunity to share […] experiences to the broader Canadian [and global] public” can be profound in making visible the multiplicity of experiences that shape “poverty-class” students’ lives and the co-collaborative research experience.
For example, Adair (2008) co-developed “a nationally touring installation entitled ‘The Missing Story of Ourselves: Poverty and the Promise of Higher Education.’ This photographic and narrative exhibit—developed by low-income, student parents—presents complex, first-person views of what poverty and resistance through education look like from the inside out” (p. 1). I was fortunate to receive a printed copy of the installment (this was the pre-digital era) and what still echoes for me is that through photos, Adair and the participants make visible that “What we call knowledge [in academia] then simply refers to the particular construction or version of a phenomenon that has received the stamp of truth in our [colonial, Western-centric academic] society” (Salter, 2017, p. 378). The raw transparency of Adair and the participants challenges “boundaries” and “relational markers and opportunities for transformation through solidarity” (Salter, 2017, p. 375). Moreover, PAR and photovoice hold the potential to co-produce knowledge where “one is connected to wider markers or personal and group identity” (Salter, 2017, p. 378). In the same way, as “Freire (1970) says […] ‘solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is radical posture” (Salter, 2017, p. 380). Finally, PAR and photovoice speak to me as research as solidarity and an act of resistance; as relational (lateral) rather than top up or top down research (of which I do not philosophically understand for my research goals). “According to bell (1989, p. 116), traditional ethical theories [and methodologies] ‘do little to challenge oppression and violence […] ethics (of freedom) must condemn system of oppression as well as individual acts violating the freedom of other” (Salter, 2017, pp. 380-381).
What draws me to PAR (and perhaps a hybrid of PAR, narrative inquiry relational ethics of care, and potentially poetic inquiry and/or co-operative inquiry, which I am just beginning to learn) is that the “question of action continues to be under-represented in postmodern discourses” and methodologies (Salter, 2017, p. 381). I see this escalating in the neoliberal university where publish or perish dogs even full professors (yes, some universities are starting to break tenure). For this and the many reasons listed throughout this proposal, my research must be co-collaborative and action based. That is, by and for community today and tomorrow.
As the literature demonstrates, we cannot wait for the Federal government to enact poverty-based discrimination and inclusion laws nor universities to include social class (in meaningful ways) into their EDI and SEM initiatives. We might as well be “Waiting for Godot” or for the privileged pillars of higher education to implode. For “poverty-class” students currently on the higher education landscape and those who might dare to dream of accessing higher education to stop the cycle of poverty, we do not have time for academics to engage in theoretical debates regarding our lives in the making. With a co-collective methodology such as PAR and photovoice, taking into consideration the potential limitations of someone who has never used it in practice, it holds the potential to create meaningful change not only in the imagined or theoretical but in real time. I cannot speak for others but I, for one, am tired of higher education sites continuing to be landscapes where SES “disadvantaged” students are situated as “outcasts on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne 1999, p. 421). Laberge, p. 321). That is, Other.
Others imagining otherwise
“The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present; but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that mas made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.” (Steedman, 1997, p. 3; as cited from John Berger, 1972, pp. 83)
I am, as student and student-participant-researcher, is biographical and cannot be separated from my research. As I create forward-looking stories, stories of to be, new ways to approach social justice research, I am mindful of my relational obligations to unpack my own narrative beginnings and becoming in direct relation to my sociological research. Although I have witnessed, and been subjected to, much discrimination and violence over the last two years, and which shape my understandings of the neoliberal university, others’ stories are not mine to tell. Many of my stories will remain private. There are those who are still living these stories. As such, ethically and morally, I cannot co-opt their lived experiences to provide validation of my own experiences, nor do I need to. The legitimation of my understandings lies in the stories themselves. As such, there is no singular truth, rather there are multiple truths; students’ knowledge making does not need legitimating (Almeida, 2015; Caine, Estefan, & Clandinin, 2013). As Caine et al., (2013) note:
From a narrative view of experience, we attend to place, temporality, and sociality (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) within our own life stories and within the experiences of participants. Within this space, each story told and lived is situated and understood within larger cultural, social, familial, and institutional narratives. Narrative inquiry is marked by its emphasis on relational engagement, whereby the understanding and social significance of experience grows out of a relational commitment to a research puzzle. For these reasons it is important that narrative inquirers carefully consider who they are, and who they are becoming, in the research puzzle. (p. 577)
These scholars help remind me that my own life stories and experiences are always in relation to larger structural processes of inequity and inequality. That the individual is always in relational to these larger—and often dominant, Western-centric—narratives. A year ago, even four months ago, this preface and following wonders would have been shaped differently as I struggled to see past the suffocating suffering that was ravaging my entire being and life in the making. Sense making of this suffering and injustice was as elusive as dandelion fluff. I could not see past the disillusionment, violence, and injustice of being encouraged—courted—to give up everything to come to this university under the cover of false pretences. I began to believe that this is no “landscape for a good [underclass] woman” (Steedman, 1997). When I lost the courage to be the prolific writer I am know for, something that sustains me, it all felt futile. I began to walk in fearful ways, knowing that my lived experiences, wonders, and knowledge making would likely result in failing grades. Instead of loving to learn, I because paralyzed from the terror of being ousted and outed with no place to go back to and no way to go forward to. I knew not how to embrace an imposter syndrome, conform, assimilate, nor follow a prescriptive graduate program linear path. I am Other. Absolon (2012) writes of locating herself, “Experiences, thoughts and feelings about who I am are a result of cultural, political, social, and spiritual effects in my life. I have been socialized in a dominant culture” (p. 18). For myself, this includes being storied as “not quite white” (Wray, 2006).
These explorations are also shaped by my own lived experiences as a “poverty-class” doctoral student and student-researcher of the complexities regarding access and equity in higher education for those whose lives are shaped by growing up in persistent childhood poverty and/or those who are living in poverty. My doctoral research is informed by a multiplicity of intersecting factors and my social characteristics (for instance, I am a 54-year-old white female, English is my native language, my religious beliefs are not visible): (1) Ongoing literature review; (2) Former research projects; (3) Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives at the University of Victoria (e.g., contributions to the strategic enrolment management process, creation of the www.shoestringinitiative, bringing forth social class to the Graduate Student Society, Equity and Human Rights (EQHR), Faculty of Graduate Studies, CUPE 4163); (4) Persistent conversations with provincial and federal government agencies, education associations, and poverty reduction coalitions; (5) Accessing educative (Dewey, 1938) opportunities to advance my education, research, doctoral program, and career (something that is required of all University of Alberta graduate students); (6) The continued reflexive explorations of my narrative beginnings, and current higher education experiences, in relation to my overall research on the sociology of education and poverty in Canadian universities; (7) My responsibilities as a white generational settler to anti-colonial practices, pedagogies, research, and knowledge mobilization, and (7) My lived experiences at this publicly-funded Canadian university.
A leadership search for meaning making in higher education. To found hope lost, I discovered Frankl’s (2006) “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In this treatise, I not only unearthed hope but a resurfacing of my dreams and a way forward from the seemingly impossibility of the colonial neoliberal miseducative (Dewey, 1938) landscape where I am currently a visitor. Their profound articulation of their philosophy of living deeply resonates for me and which has always grounded my ways of walking in the world (Young, 2005), meaning making, and knowledge production. Frankl (2006) advocates that a search for meaning making begins and stays with something more than oneself and their personal goals, accumulation of goods, titles, fame, academic prestige, bank accounts, etc. That is, “dedication to a cause greater than oneself” (Kushner, 2006, pp. xiv-xv).
I am cognizant of the punishing impact of coming out of the social underclass closet and bumping up against the privileged pillars of higher education. The physical bruises heal; my soul’s bruises will not heal so easily. So often the “blood rushes to my head because I had to listen to [people] judge my life who have so little idea of it” (Frankl, 2006, p. 25). I am aware I am storied as a “one dimensional” (Power, 2009) student, as a single story (Adichie, 2009), who is not academically capable, does not take their academics seriously, who has not earned/proven the right to be mentored and supported, and who is caught up in the “fun stuff” like my research and collective activism work. I am inscribed by the embodiment of generational poverty; as “just” a student, “branded with infamy” (Adair, 2001); “disciplined and punished” because I dared to “resist through education” (Adair, 2003) the systemic and structural patriarchal and classist (add any other —isms) violence I experience and witness.
I have been subjected to, and subjugated by, the relentless onslaught of attempted erasure of this life in the making: the early and eager supportive calls for me to quit, the recommendations to switch departments, threats of failure and thus lugging the burden of an academic GPA criminal record for life, the encouragement to stick it out when it was clear that waiting for support and mentorship was as futile as “Waiting for Godot.” I learned that the “icy winds” of capitalist-cum-neoliberal academia “ensure that hardly a word is spoken” about this persistent violence and injustice (Frankl, 2006, p. 37). It is troubling that to speak out makes one a trouble maker. But I must trouble this in my sociological research and knowledge production and dissemination (Almeida, 2015). For I fear I shall become nothing more than a learned lemming; a human who only cares about their own individualistic interests. That is, self-preservation, above all else, feeds the unquenchable and greedy thirst of neoliberalism, which precludes the collective power of social change through solidarity and community. In this I cannot be complicit. After thirty odd years, Brené Brown (2017) has come to realize her ethical and moral philosophical ways of being:
I know who I am. I’m clear about that. I’m not going to negotiate that with you. I will negotiate a contract with you. I’ll negotiate maybe even a topic with you. But I’m not going to negotiate who I am with you. Because then, and I think this is the heart of the book, because then I may fit in for you but I no longer belong to myself. And that is a betrayal I’m not willing to do anymore […] to fit in with you.
I, too, have tried to fit in for individuals and institutions. I found myself no longer belonging to myself and stripped of everything of who I am. Indeed, this was a betrayal to myself, those who could not come before me, those that walk alongside me, and those who will come after me. I wonder, can I do anti-colonial and anti-oppressive research and knowledge production if I must negotiate or erase who I am in academia? Until recently, I wondered if change within colonized higher education institutions was even possible. I wonder, was I as delusional as I was disillusioned to think I could make a difference? As I unpack my wonders and shifting ways of knowing, I learn that neoliberalism (and the neoliberal university) is a slow violence that grinds at one’s soul’s bones until one can be forcibly bent and shaped in ways that make Gumby seem rigid and inflexible. But one fits in the box; I have never been comfortable in enclosed spaces.
A journey to an (un)familiar landscape. In thinking about “neoliberalism’s war on higher education” (Giroux, 2014) and the shift from the war on poverty to the war on the poor (Santiago, 2015), I am drawn to how I, as a student and leader, might contribute to reshaping higher education as Indigenized sites of inclusion, respect, caring, love, and relational ways of being. I further reflect upon how higher education leadership stories are shifting for me.
I encountered shock after I was formally admitted and entered onto this higher education landscape. This shock was preceded by warnings not to attend the department but came after I had given up everything: a secure home, community, ability to make money, connections, people who cared about my life in the making…. It was too late to change directions—or, perhaps I was unwilling (ashamed?) to believe I had made such a poorly informed, life altering decision.
When I arrived—and started to experience and witness what I had been warned about when I was still in Edmonton—I lived under the “illusion of reprieve” (Frankl, 2006, p. 11) that somehow everything would be okay. “At first, I did not realize the meaning behind the scene that was to follow presently” (Frankl, 2006, p. 11). At first, I was unable to grasp what I might lose in this Ivory Tower prison. As most of my cohort’s females came together as a collective to address the department’s systemic patriarchal and colonial issues, we could not have imagined the consequences of doing the very thing that our discipline expects of us. I felt like my whole former life was erased. I had been reduced to a one-dimensional V00###### identity who struggles to…. I “could not yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away” (Frankl, 2006, p. 14) and what that everything would entail. The loss of most of the women in my cohort echoes in complex ways that I have yet to unpack.
Curiosity was replaced by a “cold curiosity” that evolved into a cold anxiousness of “what would happen next […] and what would be the consequences” of my advocating for equality and equity in the department (Frankl, 2006, p. 16). I dared to do sociology…. It was too late for me to quietly crawl back onto the backstage; I was occupying the front stage before I arrived, which is not a place I like to occupy, but that I must because of my research in addressing the injustice of a lack of socioeconomic diversity in Canadian universities (i.e., “poverty-class” students; see Laberge, 2017; Goffman, 1959; Tyler, 2018).
I found myself consumed with apathy—a kind of emotional death. I continue to feel a boundless longing for home, community, dreams…. Sleep began to elude me; nightmares terrorized me; night terrors ravaged me. I also “feel disgust with all the ugliness” (Frankl, 2006, p. 20) and injustice that surrounds me. At some point, the vertical and lateral violence that surrounds me became such commonplace sights to me that they “threaten to not move me anymore” (Frankl, 2006, p. 20). Thus, as an Ivory Tower prisoner, I surround myself with a very necessary protective shell. The mental agony of injustice, the unreasonableness of it all, starts to harden me. As a prolific writer, I became fearful to write. The fear of failure and expulsion as punishment—and, not surviving with my values and heart and soul intact—crushes my spirit of resistance.
I fear that I am caught in a mental turmoil that threatens all the values that I hold dear and throws them into doubt. Under the influence of the neoliberal academic world, that no longer seems to recognize the value of human life and dignity, which has robbed people of their will and made them objects of the corporate higher education world, I fear I will become nothing more than learned lemming—or pray for escape—or just care about getting that venerated piece of paper.
I became “ashamed to be unhappy” (Frankl, 2006, p. 114); ashamed that I keep hanging on; ashamed that I have been futilely waiting for liberation. I became fearful that my existence would descend to the level of a “primitive” focusing only on my own self-interests (Frankl, 2006, p. 28). The heart-breaking pain came when I had to accept that “what stood behind [my V00######] and my life mattered even less” (Frankl, 2006, p. 53): the fate, the history, my name…. Oh, how I errored. The number one imperative law of self-preservation as someone from the margins in the Ivory Tower prison: Don’t be conspicuous; it is too late. However, as Arundhati Roy is quoted as saying, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” As such, I continue to resist being silenced and can accept if I am preferably unheard. Lorde (1984) writes, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood” (p. 41). I cling to her wisdom with my “[b]lood-soaked and pain stricken […] ravaged fingertips of [my] red worn hands,” hands that have not been able to “reach the” academic keyboard for many months (Laberge, 2017). Yet, I have journals, fields of field notes, boxes overflowing with notes, ideas, and wonders—safely out of academia’s harm’s way.
Type a word
Fragmented segmented press delete
Take a breath type a sentence press delete
Take a deep breath manically type overflowing thoughts press delete
Air rushes to my oxygen-starved lungs
Run for the covers for cover
Delete delete delete They press delete
I offer no apology; I cannot afford to; I cannot afford to be careful. Anything less is soul-crushing silencing. I am engaged in public sociology, problem solving sociology, which demands a courage that I fear I don’t have—must have even if I have to gather the tattered shreds of my confidence. Faux confidence will have to suffice; faux confidence must carry me through. I made a promise to mentors, master’s research participants, ancestors, myself—to current participants and those who are coming alongside me. Even when Power tries to fail me and erase my footsteps, I must continue to find a way forward. Yet, so many warning narratives planted in me before I arrived at this university and department. So many explicit and implicit damaging narratives foisted upon me since I arrived. I resist, I think.
Prove your worth
Learn your lines
Learn your role
I revel in learning
I’m not your court jester your circus animal
Keep me out of sight
Out of mind
The playground was/is the academic battlefield
Academia leadership kills the curious cat
I have nothing to protect me: no armour, healthy bank account, powerful allies, dedicated mentors, or map to traverse hostile academic landscapes. I don’t know where all the dangers lie or what lies in wait should I transgress. That is, beyond being outed and ousted. Beyond being sidelined, tossed away, devalued, disowned, Othered, caste in a box. The markings—makings—of a fine cover story of what I risk should I dare to practice what I am learning. Throughout all the seemingly shocking seismic shifts and stumbles, as I struggle to compose a life for myself on this higher education landscape, I oscillate like the whirlwind of a fan on full blast during sweltering summer heat waves, between doing the research I believe can create shifts or writing a critical autoethnographic narrative inquiry of my experiences—and, why I am leaving the Ivory Tower. However, should I choose the latter, I will irrevocably lose the “extraordinary potential” of reshaping even a small square of the higher education landscape (Huber, Caine, Huber, & Steeves, 2013). Choosing survival over sociological research for the public good, I will leave with a piece of paper chalk-full of missed opportunities to contribute to something that is, “dedication to a cause greater than” myself (Kushner, 2006, pp. xiv-xv). I cannot, and should not, erase the multiple inroads I have made at this university over the last two years in addressing and advancing socioeconomic diversity. However, my doctoral research is pragmatic and draws on the very university members (current and past) who have the profound knowledge to contribute to bringing forward action items that can be taken up, (re)shaped, and contributed to. This research will be a legacy left for those who come after us.
Crow and Weasel’s knowledge production through world-traveling
In order to further demonstrate how we can reimagine leadership, I draw on Lopez’s (1991) “Crow and Weasel.” Lopez’s story that honours intergenerational knowledge and experience e shows that student-participants’ experiences, too, carry important knowledge about walking and leading in relational ways:
The horses shivered off the night. Pintos and buckskins, sorrels and blue roans. They stood watering in the creek or continued to graze, their breath rising in the steam. A few watched two young men walking out towards them from the village. As the men drew near, the horses that were dozing began to stir.
The men walked softly among them, reassuring them with quiet words, slowly separating two horses out. They eased buffalo-hair bridles over their necks and started them back to the village. The one named Weasel led, trailing a pale mare with dark brown ears. The one called Crow followed behind with deliberate calmness, walking a bald-faced pinto colt. Crow’s eyes were fixed on the dark, silent doorways of the tipis ahead. Weasel stopped once, to finger blades of grass that had been cropped by an animal other than a horse in the night.
When the men had saddled their horses, they tied buckskin bags and parfleches to the saddle frames and small medicine bundles in the horses’ tails and manes. They threw elkskin robes over their frames and then went to their separate lodges to say goodbye to their families. Each young man’s family had opposed this trip. With the counsel of Mountain Lion, an Elder who had had a powerful dream about the two men, both families had relented. But the partings, now, were not warm. What these young men proposed, their fathers still felt, was dangerous.
Crow and Weasel went alone to Mountain Lion’s lodge.
“You two young men must not forget,” he said, “that you are runners. You are carrying our way of life with you, for everyone to see. Listen. Be strong. When you are tempted to give up, think of your relatives.” He looked over at Weasel, sitting on his horse, and back at Crow. “Watch out for each other,” he said.
Mountain Lion then gave Crow a pipe bag.
“You are not old enough, either of you,” he said, “to be pipe carriers. But my dream tells me to send this with you to share with those you meet.”
“Way-hey!” said Mountain Lion, standing back. “Travel like men. Remember your people” (pp. 7-8).
Lopez, B. (1991). Crow and Weasel. London: Random Century Ltd.
Crow and Weasel set off hesitantly—without the blessing of their family and community. But, they started out—and, remained together for the entire journey.
Along the way, they found themselves on landscapes they had never seen before. They did not recognize the plants; they could not see food they were accustomed to. At times they thought they would perish from hunger. They met people who terrified them; they thought the people called Inuit might kill them. Instead, there was a communal sharing of knowledge, experiences, and wisdom of both their people. Crow and Weasel honoured their people by sharing their way of life with the Inuit. They did not have to erase their identities; they celebrated intergenerational knowledge that was situated in the centre rather than the margins.
Many times, Crow and Weasel talked of turning back; many times they kept these thoughts to themselves. They did not story turning back as failure; what they learned, at any point in their journey, was new knowledge they could take back to their community. They had a community to go back to. Without each other’s support, they would have died.
Throughout the journey they did think of their relatives—and, the footsteps that would follow theirs. They became part of communities they met along the way.
They returned home to share new knowledge with those who would not be able to make such a journey. Their experiences echoed throughout the land (Laberge, 2017, pp. 303-304).
Leaders must know the old stories that hold up privileged pillars
To write new leadership stories and combat the “clash between the forces of life and the forces of domination, between the new story and told” (Wheately, 2007, p. 29), leaders (which we are all) in our troubled times, we need to know the old stories that are deeply planted in our collective psyches and that we see enacted in every facet of public and private life. It took me two years to unearth these old stories to help me understand why I could not make any substantive difference with my research and advocacy. I know that Power is burning out; what we are doing is not sustainable.
Finding the missing research puzzle pieces. While my master’s research (2017), “The Echoes of Childhood Poverty” has created some shifts (certain individuals have taken up the work to create social change and inclusion for those whose lives are shaped by poverty), few inroads have been made within and across academic institutions and associations. The why has been the most challenging treasure pieces to find for my research puzzle. I could not understand why Canada continues to lag behind so many other countries that are addressing increasing access to higher education for low socioeconomic (SES) students (e.g., Ivana, 2017; Lehman, 2013) until I started asking, “Where’s social class in all this EDI stuff?”
EDI pillars. It was perhaps serendipity that drew me to the first puzzle piece. Meeting with the University of Victoria’s (UVic) EQHR regarding bringing social class to the table, it was explained that social class falls outside the “four pillars” covered by the Canadian federal Employment Equity Act. These four pillars include “Under-represented groups [that] include those identified in the federal Employment Equity Act – women, visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, and persons with disabilities – as well as, but not limited to, LGBTQ2+ people and men in female-dominated disciplines” but sans low SES—the invisible minorities (Universities Canada, 2019; italics added). These four pillars (plus sexual identity) are the foundation of Universities Canada, “the voice of Canadian universities” (2019, n.p.) EDI mandate. As such, given their autonomy, individual Canadian universities (e.g., UVic) exclude social class from their equity, diversity, and inclusion policies and mandates. The various higher education associations (e.g., the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUS) also do not address low socioeconomic status in their advocacy work. However, they are willing to engage in conversations should I bring ways forward for the inclusion of social class. As a result, these factors, including my own experiences at this institution, shape my doctoral research puzzle.
Laws and legislation. The second discovery, in part, makes visible the systemic and structural reasons why poverty continues to plague Canada. Over the last two decades, bills to include poverty-classed people as a protected group, and to prohibit discrimination based on poverty, that were brought forward to the House of Commons, have been repeatedly and unanimously voted down. For instance, in discussing this issue with the former member of Parliament for Vancouver East Libby Davis (1997 to 2015) via email (2019), she explained that her tireless efforts to bring forth bills to the House of Commons to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act based on poverty discrimination were unanimously voted down each time. After decades of advocating for this change, she realized that those who hold federal power are not interested in addressing this human rights’ violation. Davis (2011) introduced a private member’s bill C-263, “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (social condition)” (n.p.). It states:
This bill is important because it would prohibit discrimination on the grounds of social condition. It would prohibit discrimination against people who are experiencing social or economic disadvantage on the basis of their source of income, occupation, level of education, poverty, lack of adequate housing, homelessness, or any other similar circumstance.
There are people in our society who have been economically and socially discriminated against based on those various grounds. They face terrible discrimination, whether it is with respect to housing or employment, or accessing public services or community services. It is important that the Criminal Code be clear, that it would be against the law to discriminate against someone on the basis of poverty.
I am pleased to introduce this bill today. I hope that all members of the House will support the bill, because we recognize discrimination as a serious issue in our society that needs to be addressed. (n.p.)
This and similar bills were not passed into law. Davis (2019) says, “It was always hard to get policy makers to clearly identify poverty reduction and social condition as a priority for action. Used to drive me crazy that people were ok to work on eliminating ‘child poverty’ but not adult” poverty (personal communication). To add an additional layer of context, the Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel (2000) reported that:
Internationally, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights, in its concluding observations on Canada’s performance under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in December 1998, expressed concern about this issue [i.e., discrimination and exclusion based on poverty]. The Committee urged federal, provincial and territorial governments “to expand protection in human rights legislation […] to protect poor people in all jurisdictions from discrimination because of social or economic status.” (p. 100)
However, even this recommendation did not hold sway with the federal government. Opposed to the inclusion in the Act of poverty discrimination were the Canadian Bankers Association, who state that, “There is no question that poverty is an unfortunate occurrence in our society, but one that contains the possibility of being overcome given the variety of mechanisms in place to assist those who are in need” (p. 109). And second, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, who objected to the inclusion on the grounds that including poverty-based discrimination in the Act could negatively impact immigration rates. They said, “If the costs of immigration are seen to exceed the benefits, support for immigration overall could diminish” (p. 109). Meaning, immigration rules could not discriminate based on low socioeconomic status. The Charter Committee on Poverty Issues (2000) was clear in the many ways that poverty discrimination impacts lives from a sociological perspective. They state that, “Systemic issues of credit-worthiness assessment, deposit requirements, co-signor requirements and the like loom large in the denial of services, housing and facilities to poor people” (p. 109). Today, in terms of higher education and a lack of holistic support for “poverty-class” students, poverty also includes the inability to access student and emergency loans and bursaries, pay tuition fees on time, pay for transcripts, and the list goes on.
Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy? Today, the advocacy work of parliament members and poverty reduction advocacy groups continues to be unsuccessful in convincing those in and who hold power for the well-being of Canadians and society that poverty negatively shapes entire lives, communities, and society—and, is a determinant to being civically engaged in democracy. It is not without irony the dedication of Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy, Opportunity for All” (2018), is dedicated “To those who persevere despite facing the daily, all-consuming weight of poverty, exclusion, discrimination, ignorance and hopelessness and to those who work tirelessly to strengthen our communities by lifting others up (p. ii). Yet, the federal government’s ubiquitous advertisements are, “Helping middle class Canadian families at every step of their lives […] supporting the next generation of middle class workers” and so on (Government of Canada, 2019), which USA democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi perfectly parroted during her acceptance speech (2019). There is another layer of complexity to poverty and human rights.
Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy (2018) report states that:
The vision of Opportunity for All is to eradicate poverty because we are all better off when no one is left behind. Opportunity for All supports a human rights-based approach to poverty reduction, reflecting principles that include universality, non-discrimination and equality, participation of those living in poverty, accountability and working together. (p. 19)
Yet, this discrepancy becomes glaringly apparent when one realizes that discrimination based on poverty continues to be condoned as long as it is excluded from the Human Rights Act. These binaries sit in tension. While this report looks good on paper, in actuality, poverty rates are not decreasing for the most vulnerable populations: those identified in the four pillars of protected groups. The Canada Without Poverty Coalition (2017) reports that “in 2012, the federal government dismantled the National Council of Welfare (NCW), an arm’s-length government agency specifically mandated to research and provide accurate pan-Canadian data on poverty. Despite pressure from United Nations treaty body reviews, the federal government has not re-established the NCW” (p. 3). As such, it is left to non-profit organizations to attempt to collect and disseminate poverty rates, which can be in direct contradiction to those provided by the federal government, particularly during election years.
Second, strategies for poverty reduction through post-secondary education are reduced to less-than complex measures. For instance, the report states that poverty as a barrier “to post-secondary education hold Canadians back from joining the middle class” (2016, p. 26). That is, a reinforcement of the myth of the classless society. There is a change to the student loan repayment program “so that students do not have to repay their loans until they are earning at least $25,000 per year” (p. 26) unless a student has previously declared bankruptcy. In this case, as a student explained to me, they must start repaying their student loan while they are still in school regardless of their income level. Of course, this does not factor in students from and/or living in poverty that will never climb their way out of their debilitating student loan debt (I know too many “poverty-class” students in this situation). Nor do any economic strategies take into consideration the burden placed on students to prove their family’s social class status (lower-income or middle-income) in order to be awarded a small bursary increase.
Historical racism and classism. Two of the pillars that shaped the colonizing of these Indigenous lands are racism and classism. Woodworth’s (1909) manuscript, “Strangers within our Gates or Coming Canadians” is a tell-all account of the hierarchical desirability of immigrants to recruit and accept for immigration and thus, colonization. We see these echoes in Canadian higher education today. White, wealthy male Protestants (and their families) from Great Britain were the most desirable. Second, white, wealthy male Catholics (and their families) from Great Britain. As one goes down the hierarchy of “desirable” immigrants, skin colour deepens and socioeconomic status decreases. Canadian universities were built for the privileged male Protestant and over time, in order for universities to be sustainable, they opened their doors to privileged white male Catholics. “Privileged” in this context refers not only to male privilege but also to Bourdieu’s (1986) forms of social, cultural, economic, and symbolic capital (n.p.). Thus, Canadian universities, even before they were publicly funded, were built by and for privileged white males. The privileged pillars of Canadian universities were forged with white wealth.
University of Victoria strategic enrolment management (SEM). In December 2018, I attended UVic’s SEM events to provide input on supporting “poverty-class” students. From this, the co-founders of the Shoestring Initiative and myself composed a list of research-based recommendations to support “Goal 1c, Strategy 4: Enhancing and Developing Initiatives for Low Socioeconomic Status Students” (2018, https://shoestringinitiative.com/getting-heard/). Because universities such as UVic have followed the lead of the Vancouver Island University in supporting (to differing degrees), students from/in foster care, these students form the major component of Goal Ic. Not surprisingly, the initial strategies developed by the committee quickly faltered off. Those with the knowledge—those with lived low SES status lived experiences—were not included in the consultation. As such, these students become part of the discussion rather than part of the discussion (Adair, 2003; Laberge, 2017). Currently, our contributions are sitting in limbo. While access and equity for “poverty-class” students are not a pressing issue for Canadian universities, justifying this lack of low SES inclusion under the Federal Employment Equity act and Human Rights Act, there are some higher education anomalies that are profoundly shaping my research puzzle and methodology.
Social condition is both objective, for instance, “a person’s standing in society is often determined by his or her occupation, income or education level, or family background” plus “subjective associated with perceptions that are drawn from these various objective points of reference. This language is generally consistent with guidelines concerning the meaning of social condition issued by the Québec Commission in 1994” (Canadian Human Rights Act Review Panel, 2000, p. 110).
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